Book review: The Gallipoli Oak by Martin Purdy and Ian Dawson

The Gallipoli Oak by Martin Purdy and Ian Dawson
The Gallipoli Oak by Martin Purdy and Ian Dawson

In a corner of a ‘foreign field’ in the barren Great War killing grounds of Gallipoli in Turkey stands a lone and alien English oak tree – a 90-year-old living symbol of a young Lancashire soldier whose death there in 1915 has come to reflect the sacrifice of thousands.

The tree was seeded near Coniston in the Lake District in 1922 and transported thousands of miles as a sapling in a bucket of water by the grieving father of teenage Second Lt Eric Duckworth who was last seen slumped among the barbed wire in front of a Turkish trench.

The survival of the tree, albeit smaller in size that an average oak because of its unfamiliar home amidst dry barren scrub, tells an amazing story not just of the devotion of one young man’s family but about a controversial military campaign which killed over 100,000 troops, including 43,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers.

The Gallipoli Oak, a moving and inspiring tale of love, loss and remembrance, is the work of two Lancashire men with a special interest in the First World War who uncovered the history of this extraordinary tree whilst researching the battlefields.

Martin Purdy, who is currently completing doctoral research work with Lancaster University and the Westfield War Memorial Village in Lancaster, spent a number of years working as a freelance First World War adviser for the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? magazine and is particularly interested in the issue of disability among ex-servicemen.

Fellow author Ian Dawson owns one of the most extensive private libraries on the First World War and has spent many years visiting the battlefields and walking in the footsteps of the men whose memoirs he values so highly.

Featuring previously unpublished material and photographs of some of those Lancastrians who took part in the Dardanelles campaign, The Gallipoli Oak tells the incredible story of the Lancashire oak tree, the 19-year-old officer whose loss inspired a family to plant it and the amateur soldiers from East Lancashire who were to make history as members of the first ever Territorial Army formation to volunteer for overseas service.

When Eric’s father, 58-year-old Rochdale businessman James Duckworth, stepped from a cruise ship onto the shore of Gallipoli in March 1922, he was clutching a bucket containing the oak sapling after nursing it carefully during a 1,500 mile voyage.

He was accompanied by his wife and a host of other pilgrims equally desperate to visit this Mediterranean outpost.

With the help of a sketch provided by a survivor from Eric’s platoon, the Duckworths had planned to plant the oak by the spot where their eldest son Eric was last seen alive at the ferocious Battle of Krithia Vineyard.

Private Norman Howarth, another Rochdale resident, later wrote: “Lt Duckworth led our platoon towards the vineyard. Many of the men were ‘green’ reinforcements and halted at the first trench. About 20 led by Lt Duckworth kept charging the second.

‘Only three made it to the Turkish parapet – Private Porter, myself and Lt Duckworth. Porter was about 10 yards to my left and we were busy shooting Turks. Porter crawled nearer to me and told me that Lt Duckworth had been shot.’

When the smoke lifted Howarth said that he could see Duckworth 30 or 40 yards to his left, ‘sat on the parapet [of the enemy trench] with his head on his chest.’ The Rev Fletcher, the battalion’s chaplain and former vicar of Rochdale, added: ‘Lt Duckworth was right up against the Turkish trenches fighting bravely with his men when he was seen to fall, shot through the chest.’

As the fighting continued the bodies of many of the casualties were trapped beyond the reach of their comrades. Among them was Eric. His body was never recovered.

Despite locating the area where Eric had died, the Duckworths decided that the tree would not survive in what was then an exposed, arid area where battlefield clearance work was still going on.

Instead, they planted the precious sapling in the nearby Redoubt Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery which contained the bodies of many of their boy’s comrades from the 1/6th Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers, a Territorial Army unit made up of men from the districts of Rochdale, Todmorden and Middleton.

‘In this simple form,’ James Duckworth later wrote, ‘Eric’s name would stand alongside those with whom he fought and for whom he so sincerely cared.’

After paying the Turkish gardeners a large sum to water the tree, the couple headed home and in the following years their second son Geoffrey – and, in time, his offspring – would continue to visit the Dardanelles to ensure the tree was nurtured.

Remarkably, the tree flourished and more than nine decades later the lone Lancashire oak tree of Gallipoli provides a striking visual anomaly in what is now a Turkish national park.

Just as surprising is the fact that its existence, and the sacrifices of the Lancastrians that it commemorates, remains so little known.

For these were soldiers of the 42nd East Lancashire Division – close to 20,000 men who had made history shortly after the outbreak of the First World War by becoming the first ever Territorials to volunteer for overseas service. Many of the men belonged to towns within the old East Lancashire boundary including Ashton, Oldham, Rochdale, Todmorden, Burnley, Blackburn, Wigan, Bury and Salford.

After a gathering of the survivors in 1935 to mark the 20th anniversary of the war in Gallipoli at which pictures of the oak tree were shown, Private TT Heywood wrote in the Rochdale Times: ‘Its leaves were a rich green and it looks so strong, as young Duckworth was. Ah yes, we must forget those days; but we cannot forget men like Duckworth… and so many more. We shall go on remembering them until the sun goes down for us.’

The Gallipoli Oak is available by sending your name and address, along with a cheque or postal order for £11.50 (inc p&p) made out to ‘Martin Purdy’, to Martin Purdy, Moonraker Publishing, 45 Eliza Street, Ramsbottom BL0 0AT or you can purchase online via the website www.thegallipolioak.co.uk

(Moonraker Publishing, paperback, £10)